My first year in The Classics Club

two gulls discussing books (presumably)

I’m having an anniversary! It is one year (and two days) since I joined The Classics Club and claimed that I would read the 50 classics on my list within five years.

Since then I have read 14 of the 50 books on my list and found some new favourites. The Classics Club is also a great community and I have encountered several interesting blogs and had many interesting discussions thanks to it, so if you enjoy classics I recommend it. You choose your list yourself so the only demand is that you should list at least 50 classics and aim to finish them in maximum five years.

I have enjoyed most of the fourteen books I have read from the list so far, but three of them stand out from the rest. As an anniversary is a perfect excuse to highlight some favourites, that’s what I’m going to do.

Perhaps the most surprising book to me on my “top three most memorable classics club reads so far”-list, was Wind, sand and stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I was not at all convinced by his much more famous novel, The Little Prince, but I loved this memoir, which perfectly captures the beauty and danger of the early days of air traffic.

The second one on my list was also unexpected. I knew that I wanted to have read The Poetic Edda, but did not expect to enjoy actually reading it as much as I did. It was a lot more readable than I had expected and includes some great stories, many of which I recognized.

The last one on my list was not unexpected at all. I added The Brothers Lionheart to my list because I already knew that I loved it, and wanted to reread it, and get an excuse to tell everyone else of its greatness…

All the books read for the Classics Club
Carter, Angela: Night at the Circus
Alighieri, Dante: Vita nuova
Eliot, George: Middlemarch
Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby
Kafka, Franz: Metamorphosis and other stories
Lagerlöf, Selma: Gösta Berlings saga (Gösta Berling’s Saga)
Lindgren, Astrid: Bröderna Lejonhjärta (The Brothers Lionheart)
Moberg, Vilhelm: Din stund på jorden (A Time on Earth)
Pushkin, Alexander: The Queen of Spades and other stories
Rushdie, Salman: Midnight’s Children
de Saint-Exupéry, Antoine: The Little Prince
de Saint-Exupéry, Antoine: Wind, Sand and Stars
Thoreau, Henry David: Walden
Den Poetiska Eddan (Poetic Edda)

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Focus on the indies – Slightly Foxed

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I like it when publishers have a recognizable style, when you know that if you’ve tried and liked some of their books, you will probably like most of them. Slightly Foxed is one of those publishers. They publish carefully selected memoirs in beautiful editions and, out of the four I have read so far, three have been great. They also have a good literary magazine which I subscribe to.

One of their books, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is a classic for those of us who love reading books about books. It contains the unexpectedly funny and moving correspondence between an American writer and an antiquarian book seller in London between 1949 and 1969. Also included in this edition is “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street” which acts like a sequel. It has been printed multiple times so it should be possible to find cheaper copies but I like my bright read edition.

I was a stranger by John Hackett is probably the quietest WW2 book I’ve read. It starts reasonably dramatically with Hackett getting seriously wounded at Arnhem in 1944, but from thereon most of the book describes his quiet time in hiding, waiting to recover sufficiently to attempt a return to Allied-controlled areas. What really struck me in this memoir was his admiration and gratitude for the civilians who risked their lives hiding him. It is a great portrait of civilian life in the occupied Netherlands, of the Dutch resistance, and of quiet civilian courage during occupation.

Country boy by Richard Hillyer is another great read. It is a description of a rural English village before the first world war, a memoir of the author’s childhood in a poor farm labourer’s family and a moving portrayal of his thirst for reading and learning.

So far the only Slightly Foxed edition I have been disappointed in was The Real Mrs Miniver by Ysenda Maxtone Graham which I found a bit boring. It was well-written but as I had no relation to the fictional Mrs Miniver I could not muster enough interest in the true person behind.

Based on the four books I have read from them so far I would say that that Slightly Foxed is a reliable quality publisher. All the memoirs have been very well-written and they are beautifully produced. The texts themselves feel more conservative than daring but are generally interesting. They also feel very British.

About this series: One of the things I really appreciated when I started reading book blogs was the introduction to interesting small publishers I never would have discovered otherwise. I find it only fair that I should return the favour and present some of my own favourites. I plan to post these post ones in awhile whenever I have a publisher I want to recommend. These are not sponsored posts and include no affiliate links. Previously featured: Peirene Press.

 

A maid among maids

Sheeps in a meadowIn 1914 Swedish farms had difficulties finding enough labourers. Many young people from the country side preferred to move into the cities or emigrate to America to the hard work as a farm labourer. At this point a young Stockholm journalist, Ester Blenda Nordström (1891-1948), decided to find out for herself what it was that made people leave. Using an assumed name she applied for a position as a farm maid and spent a month working as a farm labourer. Back in Stockholm she wrote about her experience, first in an article series and later in a widely popular book, En piga bland pigor (A maid among maids) which is the one I have just finished.

So why do we need an outsiders perspective on the hard farm life when Sweden have so many great working-class authors who wrote about their own experience? Well, I must admit that I found the outsider’s perspective really helpful. Reading it today we are all outsiders and Nordström, as a very modern woman in 1914, acts as a bridge between me as a modern reader and the common life in 1914. She asks the questions I would have asked and she comments on thing I find notable but which may have been considered too normal to mention by someone who was not an outsider. She also wrote this before the working-class authors really broke through in Sweden so it was cutting edge both in its theme and the way it was done. It doesn’t hurt either that she was an excellent writer and that the book is genuinely funny.

In Swedish this type of undercover journalism is called wallraffa (to wallraff) after the famous German journalist Günter Wallraff. Perhaps it would have made even more sense to name it after the Swedish journalist who used the method more than fifty years earlier.

I may have already ordered some of her other works. I can’t wait to read about her time hitch-hiking through America or the time she spent one and a half year in Kamchatka. Unfortunately she doesn’t seem to have been translated into English so if you want to read anything by her my recommendation is to either learn Swedish or pester your favourite publisher until they translate her for you, whichever seems easiest

A Time on Earth

Birches in a meadow

The year is 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis casts its shadow over the world. In California the ageing Swedish-American Albert Carlson feels death approaching. The time has come for him to look back on his life and reflect on what he did with his one time on earth.

A Time on Earth (Din stund på jorden) by Vilhelm Moberg is a story about death and about living. About Albert who abandoned his dreams, and about his brother Sigfrid who died young and never got the chance to fulfil his.  It is a melancholic story, filled with regrets over two lives which never became what they ought, but it is written with a compassion for the characters which prevents it from being too bleak.

Albert Carlson has lived his whole adult life in the USA but never managed to make it his home. Now he spends his days in a lonely hotel room with his memories. He suffers from the common emigrant curse of longing for a country which no longer exists, the Sweden he knew has moved on without him (as an emigrant myself this is something I fear). The story moves back and forth from Albert’s life in California to his childhood in rural Sweden, both beautifully portrayed in the novel.

A Time on Earth is a beautiful book, which kept me captivated from the beginning, but it is not a very cheerful read. I believe I should find something a bit lighter for my next read.

This book was on my Classics Club reading list. I read it in Swedish but an English translation exists.

 

 

Middlemarch – first impressions

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I have a hard time reviewing Middlemarch by George Eliot, the latest book from my Classics Club reading list. I feel that I have only scratched the surface of this classic novel with my first read. Thus I am not yet ready to analyse it but I can share a few first impressions.

The first time I read something most of my focus is on the plot, which in this case starts slow and for a long time seems to meander aimlessly. It was excellently written and still enjoyable, but if I had not trusted the author I would have questioned the length of the novel. She did have a plan though. Behind the scenes she was carefully placing her characters, nudging them in the right direction, never going against their natures but still getting everyone exactly into the right places for the final resolution. It was masterful plotting and I look forward to re-reading it so I can better notice how she was doing it.

The other thing that really struck me on this first read was the interesting and realistic characters. They are all flawed, yet most of them memorable and easy to like. I found myself cheering for them and hoping that they all, well almost all, would have happy endings. I believe they will stay with me for a long time.

The only thing I did not like in the novel are a few rather ugly antisemitic comments made by characters. I do believe they were meant to be read as prejudiced rather then reflecting the author’s own opinion (unless I lost track of the family relations the characters targeted were not Jewish), but they are jarring. Apart from that I found that the text has stood the test of time very well and I really enjoyed it.

 

 

Progress report

Map showing the author's country of origin for the books I've read in 2018Map showing author’s country of origin for the books I have read during the first eight months of 2018.

Autumn is here, another third of the year has gone, and I believe it is time for another progress report on my reading and my reading challenges.

So far I have read 86 books in 2018, by 47 women and 35 men (and four anthologies). I have read books from eighteen decades and by authors from twenty-three countries. All-in-all I’m having an excellent reading year.

Reading challenges for 2018

Finish the unfinished 30-20-20-10 challenge from 2017 (done)

Read 12 books from countries I read no more than 1 book from in 2017 (done, 19/12 read)

Some highlights:

For simplicity all countries listed are the author’s country of birth (as far as I could tell).

Read and blog about at least 12 books from my Classics club reading list

I’m slightly behind on this challenge. So far I have only read seven books from my Classics Club list, bringing me up to a total of 12 out of 50 since my start in October 2017.

The classics from my list that I have finished are:

I also joined the Back to the classics reading challenge

Here the goal was to read classics corresponding to different categories. I have now read books for nine of the twelve categories and reviewed eight of them.

Read at least as many of my unread books (including new books) as I buy in 2018

I knew that this one would be the worst of this years challenges and yes, I am falling behind. Only by three books so far though so there is hope that I might catch-up before the end of the year.

How’s your reading coming along? Are you also having a good reading year?

 

Why everyone needs to read The Brothers Lionheart

Cherry blossomsThe time has come for me to review one of my absolute favourite books. A book I added to my Classic Club reading list just to get an excuse to re-read it (again) and review it. I’m  talking about The Brothers Lionheart (Bröderna Lejonhjärta) by Astrid Lindgren.

The Brothers Lionheart is primarily a children’s book, aimed at rather young children, but it has plenty to offer older readers. Indeed it is a highly unusual and brave novel. The main-character and narrator is ten-year-old Karl Lionheart and already on the very first page we are told that he is about to die. The story is however not as bleak as it may sound. For children this is primarily a fantasy adventure which deals with sibling love, death and the nature of courage in a way no other children’s books do. It has some really dark parts but it doesn’t stay in the darkness and, as all is told from a child’s perspective, it never really scared me as a kid.

In many ways this novel is more melancholic when read as an adult. Lindgren lets us read between the lines and glimpse a sadder, but equally beautiful, story. She wrote this novel at a time when her favourite brother was seriously ill and a note of love and grief runs through the text. It may look like a children’s novel but it is not afraid to take on the big questions. The result is sad and wise and comforting.

I don’t want to spoil the plot for those of you who have yet to read it, just tell you that you should. I can’t guarantee that you will like it, it is not for everyone, but if you do it is something really special.

If you don’t mind spoilers read this excellent review, but beware, it does give away much of the plot including the ending.

I need to discuss this book with everyone and that can’t be done properly without spoilers so spoilers are welcome in the comment section for this review. If you have not read it yet, avoid the comments and go and read it instead (and do come back to let me know what you thought).

TW: Death, ableism.